Artists On the Frontline of Egypt’s Societal Revolution

Graffiti on Cairo's Mohamed Mahmoud Street (image via Flickr/sierragoddess) (click to enlarge)
Banksy-inspired street art on Cairo’s Mohamed Mahmoud Street (image via Flickr/sierragoddess) (click to enlarge)

Just a few days ago, Egyptian voters passed an Islamist-backed constitution by a fairly narrow margin, but as the New York Times points out, the political fight is far from over — and along with it, a battle over the future of arts and culture in the country.

As Ahram Online recaps in an illuminating article, artists, filmmakers, actors, and other cultural creators have struggled this year with an increasingly outspoken and powerful religious Islamic presence in Egypt. There have been lawsuits, marches, protests, and even assaults as sheikhs, Salafists, and other religious figures try to censor the arts and make them conform to conservative expectations.

Abdel-Moneim El-Shahat, a spokesman for the Salafist’s Call, had some of the most inflammatory remarks, calling Nobel Prize-winning writer Naguib Mahfouz an infidel and saying his books promote homosexuality and atheism (which is presumably an insult, in this context). El-Shahat went so far as to denounce Egypt’s archeological treasures, the pyramids and other pharaonic monuments, for promoting a culture that doesn’t worship God. The pyramids are already suffering from a huge drop in tourism, a crisis for Egypt’s economy.

Other incidents are more worrisome: actor Adel Imam was found guilty of “offending Islam” for roles in three movies and sentenced to three months in jail and a LE 1,000 (roughly $170) fine, although he later won an appeal of his case. Filmmakers have been denied permits to shoot on the streets or in mosques. Earlier this month, a group of women wearing niqabs attacked a dancer, Mirette Michael, while she was protesting and cut off her hair with scissors.

Meanwhile, the artists are attempting to make themselves heard. They’ve staged marches and protests, while Egyptian actress Elham Shahin successfully sued a sheikh who insulted her, and a group called The Culture Resource (Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafy) has launched a campaign called “A Culture for All Egyptians” to promote free creative expression in the country. Perhaps most promisingly, President Mohamed Morsi hosted a number of actors, musicians, writers in an open meeting with artists at the Presidential palace in September.

Some artists boycotted the meeting, though, arguing that it was just an empty gesture, and it remains to be seen if Morsi will actually take the artists’ concerns to heart. It’s been almost two years since the first occupation of Tahrir Square, but the future of Egypt seems as uncertain as ever.

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